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When Evan Wolfson bought his Greenwich Village apartment in 1996, he had barely enough time to move in before catching a plane to Hawaii to serve as co-counsel on Baehr v Miike. That case is now considered a watershed in the marriage equality movement, of which the charismatic lawyer is considered the prime architect. It was the first time a court ruled that excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage was discrimination. It was also the catalyst in bringing about the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 — Wolfson’s campaign, Freedom to Marry, played an instrumental role.
In the past two years, he’s helped win 65 state and federal court rulings. The Supreme Court is set to rule imminently on whether same-sex marriages deserve federal protection. In the past two years, he has also completely renovated his apartment, which he now shares with his husband, Cheng He, 40, who uses his PhD in molecular biology to consult for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies. When they met online in 2002, there was an “instant connection”, says Wolfson, and they’ve been together ever since, marrying in 2011 when New York joined a growing number of states to legalise same-sex marriage.
After the couple gave up on a long-running fantasy to buy the studio next to their one-bedroom flat, they decided to renovate instead. “I wanted to make it his too, not just mine,” Wolfson explains. They found an extra room hiding in the “dead space of the entry hall and walk-in closet”, he says. “I thought if we pulled the kitchen forward and out, we’d be able to carve something into that dead space. It worked out better than we thought; it really feels like a little room instead of just an alcove,” Wolfson says excitedly of the newly created media room that is accessed by a large sliding door off the entry hall. Guests sleep on an elegant futon he found online, above which hangs a poster from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Cabaret, the classic Kander and Ebb musical that shows the chilling consequences of inaction.
“I remember going to see it in summer camp for the first time when I was probably 10 or 11 and was absolutely captivated by it,” Wolfson says. That it is a musical combined with history and “some real message” was a revelatory experience for Wolfson, who was told at an early age that he should be a lawyer. “I was very verbal, liked to argue, and I always wanted to accomplish something,” he recalls of his childhood in Pittsburgh. He is sitting on a brown leather couch in his living room. Above him hangs his impressive collection of hand-carved wooden masks, which span many countries and represent decades of travel. They are hung more or less chronologically, from left to right, beginning with ones he bought while serving in the peace corps in west Africa after graduating from Harvard Law School.
“I used to buy a mask every time I travelled, partly because that was one of the great art objects I was able to find when I was in my twenties in Africa. I also liked the idea because it connects to gay history,” he says, referencing the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay liberation groups in the US. “They wore masks because the idea was that gay people wear masks. We pass as something we’re not because we’re being persecuted.”
Wolfson realised that who you are is influenced not only by the choices society gives you but also by the language at your disposal. In 1983, he began exploring this in his law school thesis, which advocated for marriage equality. At the time, he reasoned that “by claiming the vocabulary of marriage we would be seizing an engine of transformation that would help non-gay people better understand who gay people were”.
Living in a village in rural Africa while in the peace corps, he noticed something about the men he was sleeping with: “If they lived in a different society, they would probably be gay. Because they lived in a society where that wasn’t allowed, and they didn’t even have a language for it, they were probably going to grow up, marry women and live somewhat unfulfilled lives.”
One of the many books that line the discreetly built-in bookshelves throughout the apartment is John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, which Wolfson read in college and credits with changing his life. “It was this groundbreaking book that traced the first 3,000 years of western civilisation from biblical times to the Renaissance. Boswell showed homosexuality had not always been scorned. It showed me that if it had once been different, it could be different again.”
Wolfson has the kind of profound optimism that can make seismic change possible. When he argued the Hawaii case, public support for gay marriage in the US was at 27 per cent. Nearly two decades later it stands at 63 per cent, apparently riding a wave of inevitability that once seemed impossible.
“Gay people have been fighting for the freedom to marry for 40 years. This has been a long time building and coming, and the product of millions of conversations and many gay people telling our stories, talking about our love, living our lives and showing people why they needed to change their minds,” Wolfson explains. He does not begrudge anyone his or her previously held beliefs and likes to quote Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin’s reasoning, “I’m in a delegation that formerly included Abraham Lincoln, and when he was pushed once on how he had changed his mind said, ‘I’d rather be right some of the time than wrong all of the time.’”
During the renovation, Wolfson toyed with dispensing with a kitchen but decided on a smaller open-plan one that flows seamlessly into the sitting room and features a large island made from a slab of paonazzo marble. Another slab stretches the length of the room, elegantly sitting on top of two low bookshelves beneath south-facing windows. The room looks out over Sixth Avenue with the Freedom Tower in the distance.
Leftover marble was used to transform the top of a small wood table near the entrance and two nightstand tables and a long desk in the bedroom. Wolfson worries it is too much marble, and it might be, but for the white oak floors that are stained deep brown, giving a farmhouse-chic contrast to the marble’s elegant modernism. A warmth radiates throughout the place.
A log split in two and painted with images from the 16th-century Incan conquest holds particular importance for the couple, who agonised about buying it at a market in Peru, unsure if they would be allowed to bring it on the plane home. “It stands not only as a beautiful object that’s reminiscent of a great trip and has this historical feel to it, but it’s also a reminder of ‘just do it,’ you know?”
Photographs: Brian Shumway